What The High Line's Success Can Teach Us

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Almost a decade ago when I was a newlywed and new resident of New York City, the reality of a structure I kept walking under eventually broke through the clangor. My stretch of West 14th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues was perched at the chaotic intersection of three neighborhoods, facing tractor-trailers clattering down four lanes of traffic.

Further down the street, just before 10th Avenue, there was a big black bridge. Solid, hulking, quiet. Beckoning. “What is that?” I thought. “I want to go up there.”

Soon I heard mention of the “High Line” and the newborn group Friends of the High Line, so I attended a community board meeting to learn more. The bridge, it turned out, was part of the last standing section of an elevated freight railway that moved goods between lower Manhattan and the Bronx from around 1930 to 1980. Mayor Giuliani and a group of developers called the Chelsea Property Owners were determined to tear down this pigeon-droppings-producing piece of “blight” and clear the way for fresh buildings to sprout.

But the Friends said no: Keep this physical piece of history, and make it public for all to go up there.

That proved a most simple and potent possibility. It led me, unemployed at the time, to spend hours on tasks assigned by Friends co-founder Joshua David: Call these people and solicit donations. Invite this list to write a letter, attend a meeting. Hand out information at that event. Find art for a tee shirt. See if we can have a presence at summer street fairs. Produce the street fair – get a tent and recruit other volunteers for sweaty shifts on 23rd Street one hot weekend, or Eighth Avenue another.

Overall the tasks yielded quick gratification, because the interest of others tended to appear as easily as my own. If you invite people to acknowledge, and eventually to enjoy, a park in the air, their eyes will light up. It speaks to our shared desires to ascend, to explore, to realize the potential of what’s already before us.

Despite the enthusiasm sparked by the proposal for a railroad-turned-park, making it real was still a long haul from 1999, when Joshua and fellow founder Robert Hammond met at one of those community meetings, to today, with the first section of the park just opened – and filled to capacity for much of this past weekend.

The pair found no one else organizing to preserve the structure, so they decided to try it themselves. A thousand steps unfolded, from first halting the planned demolition, to gaining cooperation from railroad owner CSX, to winning the efforts of officials at every level. A small staff and dedicated cadre of volunteers raised tens of millions of dollars, protected the integrity of the 1.5 mile structure amid controversies over proposed buildings and rezonings in the neighborhood, and led a design competition. They arrived at a plan that would embody the wildness everyone valued while allowing for droves of visitors, got the space absorbed into the city parks system, and eventually managed a major construction project.

Good luck played a role in the astonishing fact that today the rail is a park open to all, not just a notch in the belt of wily adventurers and graffiti taggers, or else torn down entirely. The High Line happened to be located in a receptive area, full of design lovers with talent and money to give. With Chelsea known as the center of the art world, it’s full of business people ready to encourage aesthetic innovation. Celebrities in the neighborhood got involved, attracting many other high-profile supporters. And those with power, such as then-City Council Speaker Gifford Miller – an old friend of Robert Hammond – and his ally, local City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, did not hesitate to aid the project, standing as an early bulwark against the wrecking ball.

The style and assuredness of the two founding partners – Joshua, a writer living in Chelsea, and Robert, a painter in the West Village – and their circles also made success possible. They embodied a can-do spirit that knew when to say yes to smart urban planning, financial and political assistance while keeping some of that accessible “what are we doing, I hope it works” giddiness. The group sought grassroots input in a genuine way, with facilitated charrettes to bring out concepts that ended up informing the actual park's design. It threw parties in the neighborhood, whose architectural and commercial development increasingly reflected the High Line’s risk-taking ethos. And it thanked supporters well, like by taking their portraits against a soaring High Line backdrop that evoked the imagination and idealism that powered the project all along.

All of this bears recalling in case the High Line’s success has lessons for other movements. So many worthy causes demand our attention every day. Indeed, the Friends' ability to raise $20 million from private donors at a single dinner engenders some bitterness that the need for a project allowing you “to go up” is not the same as for one to feed the hungry or house the homeless. (Though it's worth noting that the areas it runs through are among those with the least green space in the entire city.)

Despite its singularity, the High Line’s story may contain replicable aspects. Perhaps other efforts can reach further to find a way to make people’s eyes light up: To kindle the common love of possibility. Invite people in and let them feel ownership. Show that they’re needed both today and tomorrow, providing opportunities to step up their commitment. (Yesterday’s volunteers, for example, are now official Greeters in the park.) Tease out creative contributions from local artists and businesses in a way that makes them ongoing partners. Revel in the community that grows around a common, uplifting goal. Let the effort be serious but employ a light touch, include both hard work and festivities.

Saving the High Line and opening it for everyone not only promised personal pleasure, but the opportunity to build something together. You could get in on the ground floor of a community playground for the world. Today my original question, what is that? – has been answered: A dream realized. I went up there, and it’s incredible. And a new question is whispered: “How to do it again?”

– Karen Loew

Karen Loew is the editor of CityLimits.org.

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